The recognition that long hours, freelance contracts and distressing storylines can make the film industry a challenging place to work is leading to the creation of some innovative support mechanisms.
The red-carpet glamour can sometimes hide the stressful realities of working in the film business: job insecurity, low pay, burnout, rejection and intense periods with long hours away from family and friends is just the tip of the iceberg. That is why industry experts are now calling for more mental health awareness and solutions throughout the international film world.
Film In Mind’s Rebecca Day, a documentary film producer based in the UK who is also a psychotherapist, recently facilitated an online mental health discussion hosted on documentary film community The D-Word.
“The level of interaction was overwhelming. So many people were contributing and there was also a huge outpouring of support,” says Day. “Feelings of loneliness, isolation, depression, detachment, fear and anxiety were all voiced. The shame attached to admitting that it was a struggle had locked people into silence and ultimately isolated them. It was alarming that people were talking about suicide ideation at the beginning of the discussions, but that shows how important it is to have this conversation.”
Help from the top
Day believes the wider industry needs to recognise the importance of opening up about mental health. “The first step is to talk about it and to advocate better conditions. Ask for help from the top, it needs to come top down. We need to stop being so afraid to being vulnerable,” she says.
She would like to see more institutional support for mental health, as well as productions putting in a budget line item for emotional support services. Day offers consultations to individuals but she also assesses the mental health risks of an entire production. Documentaries and certain fiction features face an extra challenge: secondary trauma from telling harrowing stories on screen. Norwegian director Erik Poppe addressed this on Utoya — July 22, his film about the mass shooting by Anders Breivik, by having psychologists on set.
In 2017, Michael Harm, a location manager who had worked on the Harry Potter films, took his own life. That was a wake-up call for the UK’s Film & TV Charity (formerly CTBF), which runs a range of programmes and financial support for film industry workers in the UK.
“This can be a lonely industry and sometimes people feel like they have nowhere to turn,” says Manie Moolman, service support manager at the charity. “We started to look at what we could provide.”
The Film & TV Charity then launched its free and confidential support line, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week (0800 054 0000), aimed at helping with routine issues, such as financial advice, and also in crisis situations.
Moolman explains: “If there is an emergency call, we can patch them through to counsellors immediately.
If it’s not a crisis situation, if we discover more underlying issues of anxiety or depression or stress, we can advise if counselling would be appropriate and set that up.”
The counselling, either face-to-face or via phone, is offered free of charge for people actively working in the UK film and TV industries. Call handlers have responded to more than 3,000 calls and messages in the support line’s first 18 months.
More recently, the charity has launched the world’s largest research project about mental health issues in the film industry. The results will be published early in 2020. The Looking Glass survey will examine many aspects of working life in the UK film and TV industries; more than 9,000 people have filled out a questionnaire about everything from working hours and finances to alcohol use.
A smaller study in Australia in 2015 found people working in the entertainment industry had rates of moderate to severe anxiety 10 times higher than the general public.
In Australia, Entertainment Assist is looking at mental health in the country’s entertainment industry with research, training and awareness programmes. Its supporters include Village Roadshow and the group’s lead initiative is the Australian Alliance for Wellness in Entertainment.
Producers in the US lament there are not similar concrete solutions to those offered in the UK, where the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (Bectu) has run mental health first aid courses. Bectu has also campaigned for a reduction of working hours to improve work-life balance. Equity also does specific work with bullying, harassment and mental health.
The UK’s ScreenSkills is also supporting mental health training for VFX and animation workers via Escape Studios at Pearson College London; and its Indie Training Fund runs mental health courses for its members.
Ffilm Cymru Wales is working with ScreenSkills to launch MindSet, a new mental health awareness training programme for film and TV producers, managers and heads of department. MindSet is running a two-day training course in Cardiff in January with partners including BFI Network Wales and Bafta Crew UK.
Day is hoping to find funding to build an online toolkit for mental health awareness and solutions, as well as an international database of therapists who have experience counselling film industry workers.
For now, simply talking is a useful step forward to address mental health concerns and break the stigma. UK actress Scarlett Maltman was inspired to create podcast Industry Minds (co-founded with fellow actress Cathy Read) after having concerns about her own mental health. “No-one was discussing how difficult the arts industry can be,” Maltman explains. Interviewees range from casting directors to choreographers. Since the podcast, Industry Minds has expanded to offer a low-cost counselling service to those in the creative arts and plans to introduce more support structures in 2020.
Maltman adds: “There has to be this discussion because too many people are taking their own lives and we need to encourage conversation and open up about mental health.”